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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Veerappan remains hero to poor

By Sunil Raman
BBC correspondent in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu

Veerappan's funeral
Veerappan's death has triggered contrasting emotions
The governments of two southern Indian states, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, are celebrating the killing of India's most wanted criminal, Veerappan.

Eleven years after Tamil Nadu set up a team of commandos - or the Special Task Force - to deal with the forest brigand, the objective has finally been achieved.

But for many ordinary people, including the thousands who descended on the town of Dharmapuri to see the corpses of Veerappan and his three associates, the picture is very different.

There seems to be a clear distinction between the perceptions of the haves and the have-nots to Veerappan's killing.

Sandalwood smuggler

Driving from Dharmapuri to Veerappan's burial place in Malakud village, I came across Kumar, a clerk with a local bank in Thoppur.

He did not need much prompting to talk about Veerappan. "He helped poor people. The police killed him."

We crossed hamlets and roadside tea stalls where people stood in groups reading Tamil newspapers splashed with colour pictures of Veerappan.


At Mettur, Subramaniam runs an electrical shop and was too scared to talk.

"Police and politicians will trouble us," he said, before briefly describing some of the good deeds of the man known locally as the sandalwood smuggler.

Malakud village lies in the shadow of the Satyamangala hills where Veerappan operated for two decades.

We reached a Hindu graveyard where men and women from neighbouring areas were coming to see Veerappan's grave.

Many were not allowed to attend the funeral because local people feared the situation could get out of control.

'Suspicious' death

A group of women stood by the burial place wailing. One man picked up a handful of mud from near the grave and wrapped it in a piece of cloth.

Women sobbed as they rearranged fresh pink flowers on the mound of mud. Pieces of coconuts and fragrance sticks rested on the grave.

I tried to discuss the legacy of Veerappan with some of the people at the graveyard. They talked about his many exploits with passion.

Raju, from Cuddalore district, described how the villagers were not allowed to join the funeral procession and were suspicious of the circumstances of his death, believing the police were intent from the outset not to give him the opportunity of surrendering.

Veerappan's van riddled with bullets
Supporters say police broke rules in the Veerappan shooting

"It was a 'fake encounter'," he observed.

A frail old woman with sunken cheeks had travelled from afar to Malakud.

"I lost my two sons as police suspected them of links with Veerappan," she said. She showed her damaged hand and marks on her leg, saying they were the result of police torture.

When asked if Veerappan helped her financially, a couple of women joined her to say that they got nothing from Veerappan.

Where were the people who were allegedly helped by him, I asked. There were none there. Then the old woman said: "He did not give me any money but I know he was fighting for poor people."

Film star

Most of the people I talked to said Veerappan never killed a poor man. His fight was against the police and government, they would say.

Every attempt to challenge their perceptions only seemed to encourage them in reaffirming their respect for the brigand.

Even the ransom money he received four years ago for releasing veteran South Indian film star, Rajkumar, was used for poor people, they said.

Veerappan belonged to the backward Vanniyar caste and there is a sizeable number of them in this area. But many non-Vanniyars held similar views.

Professor Kalyani, a human rights activist, said the police had acted outside the rules to eliminate Veerappan. He said the incident was one of numerous abuses.

A prominent local Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger supporter, Kolathur Mani, visited Veerappan in the forest four years ago to encourage him to release Rajkumar.

When I met him in his office, a poster of the Tamil Tiger leader, Prabhakaran, was noticeably displayed.

Mr Mani demanded a judicial probe into events leading to Veerappan's killing.

He recalled Veerappan's commitment to the Tamil cause. He had a "crude concept in mind" but was concerned about Tamils everywhere, he said.

But the pro-Tamil image Veerappan tried to cultivate in the past few years was of little consequence to ordinary people.

For them he will be remembered as a Robin Hood-like figure fighting the ruling class to help the needy.

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